Pay TV is growing faster — in revenue and viewing numbers — than any other part of the broadcasting industry. Its biggest operator, Foxtel, will have more revenue than any other broadcaster by June 30 and will end up having the second highest earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation, after the resurgent Seven Network.

Around $225 million will be spent in advertising on the various Pay TV channels this year. Not much when compared with the $3.3 billion on the three and a bit (SBS) free-to-air networks. But when added to the $1.8 billion in subscription and other fees, Pay TV’s growth, size and profitability reveals it to be a very big part of the broadcast media in this country.

But try finding out audience numbers, especially on a basis that allows some comparison with free-to-air viewing. The Pay TV industry insists on disclosing  its viewing figures the way it wants to present them, unlike the FTA networks which are open about their performance on a daily basis.

Take the last two Saturday nights, March 24 and March 31. Figures from Sydney-based Fusion Strategy show that in the prime time, commercial 1 timeslot (from 6pm to 10.29pm) Pay TV outrated the FTA networks on both nights. This success was driven by the return of NRL. Saturday night is Pay TV’s peak night for Rugby League, with up to three games broadcast.

On March 31, Pay TV had a share of 22.96 per cent, according to Fusion’s analysis, or one million viewers across all channels, compared with 874,000 on the same Saturday in 2006 (a share of 19.85 per cent). And other figures from Fusion show that in the first seven weeks in official ratings in the Zone 1 prime time timeslot, Pay TV enjoyed a 14 per cent rise in average audience numbers.

The FTA networks will rightfully point out that the comparison is flawed: there is just one channel for each FTA operator while Pay TV has quite a few — more than 60 with time shifting channels included. But Pay TV is now a definite viewing option for viewers and, therefore, its performance should be subject to the same scrutiny, down to the performance of the leading channels.

But try to dig deeper into this performance to find out how the Pay TV audience is tracking daily, like I do for the FTA networks, or a breakdown of how the various channels are performing, then the shutters come down. Some information leaks through on a five-market metro basis but there are no figures across all the Pay TV platforms, broken down by market, channel and program.

Foxtel in particular is a very insular organisation and constantly protesting about issues such as sports siphoning rules, local content, competition, but rarely opening itself up in the way that the FTA networks do.

The metro and regional FTA networks (except Nine) are now quite good in producing ratings information that is relatively freely available. But the Pay TV industry still refuses to release ratings information on a regular basis.

It is scared the FTA networks will take the figures and manipulate them for their own benefit. Which they will, being competitive organisations, just like Foxtel and not averse to a bit of figure juggling themselves.

Pay TV insists on its viewing numbers being looked at on a national basis (not five metro markets for comparison) and sometimes insists on including the  viewing figures for its time shift channel (that’s programs being shown at a later time on a different channel). Pay TV will not release information on how each channel performs each day, and the only weekly figures are a list of the most watched programs (which comes from the FTA industry association).

It would be quite easy to do a separate Pay TV report looking at how the overall Pay TV business went the night before and then looking at the performance of the major channels. But that’s apparently beyond the interest of Foxtel, Optus and Austar.

The FTA networks don’t want to release the Pay TV figures because they are in the business of comparing their programs with others on a five metro market basis: the regional figures are separate and come from a different group and are not aggregates.

And there is considerable validity to the FTA argument that aggregating all Pay TV channels into one figure is misleading considering the FTA networks only broadcast one channel each.

But Pay TV is real. The FTA networks and their advertisers and consultants know all about Pay TV’s audience build: it’s where their viewers disappear to most nights for all or part of their viewing.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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